Archive for the 'Stage Magic' Category

The Dancing Midget

La Danseuse microscopique, 1902, 2m43s
Star Film Catalogue No. 394-396

A top-hatted magician shakes out a sheet, from which his assistant emerges. The magician extracts six eggs from his assistant’s mouth, which he places onto a stand. He breaks the eggs into his hat, stirring them with his wand. He shakes a large number of feathers out of the hat over his assistant, and then extracts a large egg. He places it on the table, and it doubles in size, and then explodes, to reveal a tiny ballerina. She dances on the table-top, admired by the men, who perform crude imitations of her flowing movements. Suddenly, she grows to life-size, and the magician helps her off the table. The men place a large wooden crate onto two stands, and the assistant gets in. The magician drapes the sheet around the ballerina, and pulls it away to reveal his assistant - and the ballerina simultaneously emerges from the box. The three bow together, and the magician banishes his assistant before linking arms with the ballerina and walking into the distance.

The Dancing Midget (whose slightly more PC French title translates as ‘The Microscopic Female Dancer’) is another set of variations on familiar Méliès themes, though the central image of a tiny ballerina performing on a table-top is so delightful that it more than compensates for the sense of déjà vu that pervades much of the rest of the film, starting from the recycled set from The Dwarf and the Giant (Nain et géant, 1901).

Once again, we have the scenario of a magician and his assistant - the arrangement here is broadly similar to that in The Prince of Magicians (Excelsior!, 1901). In that film, the magician’s aide was turned into a makeshift soda siphon, while here he’s required to produce half a dozen eggs from his mouth in quick succession. Their contents are mixed in the magician’s top hat (using his wand to stir them), and a well-timed jump-cut leads to the first of the film’s oddly poetic images - this time, of an implausible number of feathers descending from the hat onto the assistant.

The centre-piece of the film involves the ballerina, who is hatched from an egg that grows to giant size - albeit, somewhat disappointingly, via jump-cuts rather than any of Méliès’s more elaborate shrinking and growing effects. But the tiny ballerina herself is wholly believable, especially given the way the men react to her and (badly) try to imitate her movements. After this high point, the film has nowhere else to go, despite Méliès attempting to maintain interest by introducing a new trick in the form of a sheet-and-coffin swapover (as usual, achieved via jump cuts).

There’s some severe damage at the beginning and end, and tramlines, speckling and mild exposure fluctuations throughout, but in general the untinted print on Flicker Alley’s DVD is in very good condition, the picture sufficiently sharp to be able to make out some background details in the superimposed material, which may not have been Méliès’ intention. Neal Kurz’s lyrical piano accompaniment fits the images to perfection.


Posted on 8th July 2008
Under: Jump-Cuts, Stage Magic, Superimposition, 1902 | No Comments »

The Hat with Many Surprises

Le Chapeau à surprise, 1901, 2m34s
Star Film Catalogue Nos. 371-372

A man clad in top hat and tails enters a well-appointed drawing room, tips his hat to the audience, and places it on a small table. He takes off his coat, and shakes a larger table out of it. After adjusting the positioning of the new table, he drapes his coat over it, and it turns into a white tablecloth. He picks up his hat, and reveals that it’s empty. He then pulls four plates out of it and lays them on the tablecloth. He returns to the hat, and pulls out a set of four glasses and napkins, which he lays out next to the plates. He pulls a carafe of water and a bottle of wine out of the hat, and then some cutlery. He returns to the hat, and looks at it quizzically before producing a fan out of his pocket and waving it. Both fan and hat take on gigantic proportions. He climbs onto a stool to reach inside the hat, from which he retrieves four chairs and places them round the table. He tilts the hat forwards to reveal that it’s empty, but then extracts a man and two women, who take their places around the table. He turns the hat upside down and shakes it, and a second man emerges. The host places the hat back on his head, and it shrinks to normal size. He invites his guests to sit down, then conjures up a serving maid, who gives them food. The host looks conspiratorially at the audience, and then leaps onto the table - which disappears into the floor, taking the host with him. A picture on the wall comes to life, and looks highly amused. The host re-emerges on the other side of the room, laughing heartily as his guests leave in a huff. The picture reverts to its static form. The host picks up the discarded tablecloth and tosses it in the air. When it descends onto his shoulders, it turns back into his coat. He picks up his top hat, bows and leaves.

The Hat with Many Surprises is a delightful illustration of Georges Méliès’ seemingly boundless ability to ring virtuoso variations on what initially seems to be a decidedly familiar tune. Though the central scenario, of a ‘magician’ playing various jump-cut-engendered tricks on both the viewer and the film’s other characters is now so well known as to be somewhat hackneyed (in terms of his surviving films, these date back to The Vanishing Lady/Escamotage d’une dame chez Robert-Houdin, 1896, but there are countless more recent examples), this film comes up with what appears to be a genuinely fresh approach.

As ever, Méliès himself plays the host-magician, and it’s tempting to assume from his top hat and tails that he’s got home from giving some kind of public theatrical performance, and can’t resist offering us a private one. (He acknowledges the viewer almost at the very start, and will often turn to us conspiratorially between tricks). Most of the illusions he goes on to perform are based on the age-old rabbit-in-the-hat routine, the only twist here being that a rabbit is just about the only thing he doesn’t produce from the hat - which also expands to giant size when required to disgorge furniture and even guests. (The latter, incidentally, are dressed in period costume, and may well represent specific historical figures).

Although from a technical viewpoint this is largely familiar stuff, the timing of the business with the coat (which disgorges a table before transforming itself into a tablecloth) is impressively adroit, and the moment towards the very end when a portrait comes to life is delightfully unexpected. Instead of returning to the superimposition technique featured in The Mysterious Portrait (Le Portrait mystérieux, 1899), Méliès here prefers a jump-cut switch to a real actor emerging from the canvas, the better to create a suitably 3-D effect when he’s laughing at the discomfited guests.

The untinted source print on Flicker Alley’s edition is one of the better examples, with relatively minimal surface damage and plenty of fine detail. The Mont Alto Orchestra’s attractive accompaniment neatly parallels what’s happening on screen by presenting a theme and variations, at one point deliberately missing a beat as the fourth guest takes more time than expected to emerge from the hat.


Posted on 3rd July 2008
Under: Jump-Cuts, Stage Magic, 1901 | No Comments »

The Prince of Magicians

Excelsior!, 1901, 2m06s
Star Film Catalogue Nos. 357-358

Two men enter a room, one wearing a pale wig, the other a dark-haired magician. The latter bows to an unseen audience, turns to his companion and indicates that he should do something. The bewigged man leans forward slightly, and the magician pulls a cloth from out of his mouth. The magician displays the cloth from all possible angles, and produces a glass bowl from behind it. After placing it on a small chest, the magician positions his friend and pumps his arm up and down. The man’s mouth emits a jet of water, but it misses the bowl at first. The magician adjusts its position and continues pumping. When it is full of water, the magician picks up the bowl and puts it on a small table. He pats the man on the back, and a fish emerges from his mouth, which is placed in the bowl. Another fish is produced in a similar fashion. The magician then hands the bowl to his friend, but it bursts into flames, and he quickly puts it down. The magician produces a large piece of cloth from the bowl, behind which is a gigantic lobster. The magician hands the lobster to his friend, transforming it into a woman in the process. The magician wraps a sheet around her and pulls it away to reveal a girl sitting on top of another girl’s shoulders. The magician separates them, takes them each by the hand, and makes them bow to the audience. He then transforms them into pieces of cloth, which he inserts into the bowl. He asks his friend to bring over another bowl, and he pours water out of the first bowl into it. The friend examines the second bowl rather too closely for the magician’s comfort, and he angrily expels him from the room. He then picks up a large sheet, wraps himself up in it, and ascends through the ceiling. He re-enters the room just in time to catch the falling sheet. He bows again.

Although there’s nothing especially groundbreaking in The Prince of Magicians, either in terms of technique or narrative content, it’s an agreeable enough diversion, with a couple of genuine show-stoppers along the way. The magician’s transformation of his friend into a hand-pumped soda siphon is unprecedented in Méliès’ surviving work up to now, and the gigantic lobster that emerges from behind a sheet (complete with wobbly antenna and functioning pincers) is at least an authentic visual coup, even if it turns out to be merely a transitional effect - it is almost immediately transformed into one of Méliès’ long-suffering female assistants, who is in turn split into two much smaller girls.

Although Méliès once again plays the magician, there’s more of a sense of camaraderie here than there was in his solo efforts, with his Dr Watson-style sidekick only too happy to go along with his various tricks - until near the very end, when the magician seems to take exception to what seems to be excessive scrutiny of one of the bowls. Given that the tricks are clearly obtained through cinematic means (jump-cuts, as ever, predominate, notably in the scene where a clearly cardboard fish is transformed into the real-life article when placed in water), making it unlikely that the magician’s friend will discover anything useful, it’s an effective way of linking the filmic material with its stage-magic origins.

Given that Flicker Alley’s DVDs (both Georges Méliès: The First Wizard of Cinema 1896-1913 and Saved From The Flames) contain what is believed to be the only surviving copy of this film (Lobster Films in Paris obtained it after purchasing a job-lot of prints found in an antique dealer’s trunk), it’s in remarkably good condition, with only minor surface famage and a generally very sharp, well-exposed picture. The jaunty chamber-orchestra score is pretty generic, but sets the right tone.


Posted on 1st July 2008
Under: Jump-Cuts, Mechanical Props, Stage Magic, 1901 | 1 Comment »

The One-Man Band

L’Homme orchestre, 1900, 1m33s
Star Film Catalogue Nos. 262-263

A man lays out seven chairs in a row and counts and recounts them to make sure. He sits down in the one on the far right, and splits in two, his double moving to the seat next to him. This process is repeated until there are seven men, identical except for their differing musical instruments, occupying all the chairs. They chat amongst each other until the man in the middle stands up to conduct. The six instrumentalists perform, then sit back and relax. The conductor stands up again and indicates that they should come closer. They do so, blending into each other until only the conductor is left. He makes the chairs disappear and reappear en bloc, then individually. As he is bowing to the audience, a gigantic fan rises behind him, startling him when he turns round. He sits on the only remaining chair and sinks through the floor of the stage. He then reappears on the other side of the fan, jumping over it before disappearing in a puff of smoke. The fan descends to reveal him behind it. He bows to the audience.

In many ways a sequel to The Four Troublesome Heads (Un Homme de têtes, 1898), The One-Man Band ups the ante to a considerable degree by featuring no fewer than seven identically-dressed Georges Mélièses playing musical instruments and interacting with one another in remarkably convincing synchronisation. Buster Keaton pulled off a similar trick in The Playhouse (1921) with greater technical polish, but Méliès beat him to the screen by over twenty years.

Even though it’s obvious to our more enlightened eyes how the trick was achieved, the level of precision and planning involved in getting seven multiple exposures to sync up perfectly in terms of both image and movement is remarkable, especially given that the director was also the performer. The synchronisation goes further than just getting them to play and bow together - at one point, the conductor stretches out his arms and the two men either side of him duck to avoid him. The registration wobbles at times, but is generally superior to that in The Four Troublesome Heads, providing further evidence of how Méliès was constantly refining his techniques through repetition and variation.

Méliès was no stranger to playing the lead in his films, but it’s worth noting that in this and The Four Troublesome Heads, he’s performing without any elaborate costume or make-up, as though he wanted to be as recognisable as possible. Given that the early screenings would presumably have been held in his own theatre with the man himself in attendance, this would have added an extra dimension to the fakery. It’s the work of a showman with plenty to show off, though the film’s second half sadly lacks the fireworks of the first - the multiple-Méliès orchestra is such a tour de force that the solo business with the fan can’t help but seem a bit anti-climactic.

The print on Flicket Alley’s DVD has quite a few tramlines (possible side-effects of having to rewind it seven times for the multiple exposures?) and exposure fluctuations, but has plenty of fine detail. Robert Israel’s score begins with a drumroll before launching into a highly convincing impression of a circus orchestra, entirely appropriate to the subject.


Posted on 12th June 2008
Under: Stage Magic, Superimposition, 1900 | No Comments »

Addition and Subtraction

Tom Whisky ou l’illusionniste toqué, 1900, 1m00s
Star Film Catalogue No. 234

Tom Whisky performs a lively dance. Exhausted, he pulls up a chair and sits on it, only to find a woman appearing underneath him. He leaps up, grabs another chair, and the same thing happens - and then again with a third. The three women get up, and Tom pushes them together until they turn into a single, much larger woman. Alarmed, he pushes down on her head, shrinking her to a small child. This fails to meet with his satisfaction, so he pulls her up to the large woman again, and splits her into the original trio. He pulls out the chairs for them and lets them sit down… (print ends here)

The French title of this lively piece of knockabout slapstick translates as ‘Tom Whisky, or the Mad Illusionist’ - presumably the name is a reference to something lost in the mists of time (the novelist William Carleton has a character of that name in his Stories of the Irish, but it’s hard to see the connection), but we can safely assume that the raffish, bearded figure with his frenzied dancing goes by that name. In essence, this is a set of variations on an effect that Méliès previously created in The Famous Box Trick (Illusions fantasmagoriques, 1898), in which a child was “split” into twins with the aid of an axe and a well-timed jump-cut.

No such props are necessary for Tom Whisky - just a lively and possibly well-lubricated imagination as he conjures up three near-identical women, fuses them together to create a much plumper one (which he finds much less prepossessing, as indicated by his horrified reaction), shrinks her to create a child, and then puts everything into reverse so that he ends up with the original female trio. The print under review ends with him offering them chairs: it’s unclear whether this is the actual ending, though given the film’s minimal narrative content and running time in line with Méliès’ other single-reelers, this must certainly be a possibility.

What’s also striking about the film is the way the many jump-cuts have been carefully planned so that they integrate seamlessly with Tom Whisky’s whirling dance routine, which was clearly much less wild and random than it appears at first glance. Even though it’s obvious how they were created (to a large extent, this film harks back to Méliès’ earliest jump-cut experiments of 1896), the rapidity of his movements is clearly intended to distract the viewer’s eye from the trickery being performed elsewhere. It’s an age-old trick that an experienced stage magician like Méliès would have mastered long before he came anywhere near a camera.

Sadly, this untinted print used as the source for Flicker Alley’s DVD is in dreadful condition, and looks like a very poor-quality dupe. It’s extremely grainy, there’s lots of damage (which looks printed-in), and it’s so contrasty that Tom Whisky often appears as a silhouette: it’s just as well that the film is one of Méliès’s less subtle efforts. Robert Israel’s jaunty piano-and-violin accompaniment enhances the music-hall feel.


Posted on 9th June 2008
Under: Jump-Cuts, Stage Magic | No Comments »

The Mysterious Portrait

Le Portrait mystérieux, 1899, 1m07s
Star Film Catalogue No. 196

A man walks behind a large, empty gilded picture frame, then round the front, then round the back again before stepping through it. He then rolls up the background scenery to reveal the grounds of a chateau. He picks up a canvas depicting a landscape and fits it into the frame. He then picks up a stool and places it within the frame. He takes a seat and observes the painting, which slips out of focus and then gradually sharpens to reveal the same man sitting on the stool. They gesture and react to each other, and appear to share a joke. Finally, the portrait slips out of focus again, revealing the empty stool in front of the landscape. (print ends here)

Like The Four Troublesome Heads (Un Homme de têtes, 1898), The Mysterious Portrait makes use of superimposition, though the technique here is deployed in an altogether more sedate fashion. Essentially, the “mysterious portrait” of the title is one of Georges Méliès himself, which comes to life and conducts a conversation with the real Méliès, who reacts with considerable amusement.

The film’s main technical point of interest is that Méliès has clearly given some thought to how best to present the transition from static landscape to live-action portrait. Instead of resorting to a simple jump-cut, as one might expect, he lets the portrait gradually come into focus, the effect enhanced by the fact that the surroundings (frame, backdrop and real-life Méliès) remain sharp throughout. That aside, it’s primarily an exercise in timing, with both Mélièses reacting to each other and sharing a private joke.

The essential theatricality of The Mysterious Portrait is emphasised at the start, when Méliès, after demonstrating that the frame is indeed empty by walking around and then through it, blithely rolls up the previous background, revealing it to be a painted backdrop on canvas. The function of this would seem to be not so much an implicit claim that nothing in this film is to be believed, as a deliberately clunky and obvious effect that would be registered by even the most dimwitted spectator. By contrast, the appearance of the portrait makes use of genuinely cutting-edge film technology, and would have looked far more impressive to an 1899 audience. An experienced stage illusionist, Méliès remained an incorrigible showman to the last.

Sadly, this untinted print is the worst-preserved in Flicker Alley’s DVD compilation so far. At the start, severe chemical decomposition fights a running battle with the picture and frequently threatens to come out on top, and while the image improves later on, it remains soft and contrasty throughout, riddled with scratches and blotches, and ends too abruptly for comfort (though it’s safe to assume that the visual meat has already been served). Eric Beheim’s electronic score is pretty generic, though he does take the trouble to time a tinkling bell sound to the point where the portrait is summoned.


Posted on 28th May 2008
Under: Stage Magic, Superimposition, 1899 | No Comments »

The Conjuror

L’Illusionniste fin-de-siècle, 1899, 0m57s
Star Film Catalogue No. 183

A stage magician props up a female dummy on a table and lets it fall back before grabbing it and transforming it into a live ballerina. He helps her down and she performs some ballet steps before sitting in a chair. The magician places a large tube on the table and covers her with a cloth. She vanishes, and reappears inside the tube. The magician helps her down again, and picks her up in his arms. She dissolves into a shower of confetti. He places the tube on the table again, stands over the confetti and drapes the cloth over himself. He vanishes and reappears in the tube. Jumping down from the table, he turns into the ballerina. She climbs back onto the table, jumps down, and turns back into the magician. He takes a step back and vanishes, re-emerging on the left-hand side of the stage. He gets on the table, sits cross-legged, and disappears in a puff of smoke.

By now, Méliès’ stage-magician act was becoming somewhat familiar - earlier surviving films in that particular vein include The Vanishing Lady (Escamotage d’une dame chez Robert-Houdin, 1896), The Magician (Le Magicien, 1898) and The Famous Box Trick (Illusions fantasmagoriques, 1898), and there were doubtless many more. However, The Conjuror does manage to ring a few changes on the usual jump-cut transformations.

The key difference here is that instead of starting out with a human assistant, the magician initially brings a dummy to life as a ballerina before making her disappear in a shower of confetti in the film’s most spectacular effect. In the second half, the magician transforms himself into the ballerina and back again, as if to suggest that she’s a mere figment of his imagination that he’s somehow managed to share with us.

The original French title, L’Illusionniste fin-de-siècle, translates as literally ‘The Turn-of-the-Century Illusionist’. Since the film was made almost exactly at the turn of the twentieth century, it presumably refers to the now formidable array of cinematic tricks that Méliès had developed since he discovered the cinema - beforehand, he had of course been an actual stage magician, but the illusions he was able to conjure up by now dwarfed anything achievable on stage. Although nearly all the effects here are based on the usual jump-cut transformation principle, the timing here is particularly adroit - there’s a real fluidity about the movements of both magician and ballerina that must have required a great deal of planning and rehearsal to get right. As usual, Méliès himself plays the magician.

The print on Flicker Alley’s DVD is extremely grainy and there’s also a fair bit of exposure fluctuation and surface damage - it’s certainly one of the weaker prints in the cycle so far, though the picture underneath is sharp enough to compensate. Eric Beheim’s electronic score is broadly similar to the one he produced for The Haunted Castle (Le Château hanté, 1897), consisting of a straightforward call-and-response musical phrase, which is then repeated with only minimal variation (such as the final phrase being held slightly longer as Méliès takes a bow).


Posted on 25th May 2008
Under: Jump-Cuts, Stage Magic, 1899 | No Comments »

The Four Troublesome Heads

Un Homme de têtes, 1898, 1m04s
Star Film Catalogue No. 167

A stage magician stands between two tables, removes his head and places it at the far left of one of them. He then grows another head and crawls under the table to prove that the head is indeed completely detached. He then removes his second head and places it alongside the first one: they strike up a conversation. Having grown a third head, the magician removes it and places it on the right-hand table. He grows a fourth head, picks up a banjo and starts to sing, the three other heads joining in. Unable to stand the racket, the magician hits the two left-hand heads with his banjo, and they vanish. He removes his head and tosses it away, replacing it with the head on the right-hand table. He bounces the new head on his shoulders as though it was a football before taking a bow.

At least in terms of his surviving films, The Four Troublesome Heads marks the most sophisticated advance in Georges Méliès’ special-effects arsenal since his discovery of the jump-cut some two years earlier. That was a primitive but effective technique that facilitated rapid appearances, disappearances and transformations, but the superimpositions on display here push Méliès’ cinema further away from his theatrical roots and towards something altogether new.

In the earlier The Magician (Le Magicien, 1898), Méliès used a combination of jump-cuts and cunningly-designed props (including a fake tripod stand that wasn’t as see-through as it appeared) to create the impression of a disembodied living bust. Here, by contrast, we can actually see Méliès apparently removing his own head and placing it on a table, where it continues to talk as though nothing had happened.

The initial effect is created with Méliès’ now-familiar jump-cut technique, firstly between a shot of Méliès reaching up to his head, and then one of him sporting a black bag on his real head (the lighting doesn’t quite manage to hide this, sadly) placing a dummy head on the table. But the next jump-cut leads to something altogether more sophisticated, as the dummy head is replaced by Méliès’ real one, superimposed via (presumably) a primitive matte arrangement onto the table top. Another jump-cut causes Méliès’ head to reappear (or rather appear, since there are now two on screen), and he then gets on his hands and knees to crawl under the table, proving to sceptics that it really is bearing a disembodied head. While the joins are certainly visible (in addition to the bag, the registration between the shots is imprecise, leading to flickering round the edges of the table), this arguably adds to the film’s charm, since the sheer amount of planning and effort is all too apparent.

He could easily have stopped there, and the film would be impressive enough. But instead, he repeats the trick a second and third time, so that he now has three separate heads on two tables. Meticulously calibrated timing means that they chat to each other and eventually sing in unison, accompanied by the full-bodied Méliès on the banjo. And then, in a moment that’s laugh-out-loud funny to this day, he detests their caterwauling so much that he beats the two left-hand heads with the banjo, causing them to vanish. Finally, almost as an encore, he removes his head again, replacing it with the remaining head on the table, “heading” it football-style before letting it find a permanent resting-place on his shoulders.

The sheer breadth of Méliès’ imagination and his technical adventurousness take the breath away to this day. It’s not certain whether this was the first example of synchronised split-screen multiple exposures in cinema history (on the other side of the channel, G.A. Smith made at least half a dozen similar films, and the surviving example, 1898’s Santa Claus, combines multiple exposure with parallel action), but it’s certainly one of the earliest - and very easy to believe that it was the most complex and fluidly achieved to date. Buster Keaton would go further, and with more technical finesse, in The Playhouse (1923) with its nine performing Keatons in perfect synchronisation, and of course such effects are easy enough to achieve in the CGI era without any of Méliès’ seams, but that doesn’t remotely detract from his achievement here. If he looks a little smug when he takes his final bow, that’s entirely understandable.

As already mentioned, the definition of Flicker Alley’s print is good enough to reveal the joins, though it’s beset with faint vertical tramlines pretty much throughout, as well as mild chemical blotching. There are also significant exposure fluctuations and the image as a whole is softer than on many other prints in this set. (However, this may be a side-effect of the multiple exposures in the original). Disappointingly, Neal Kurz’s solo piano accompaniment is fairly generic - there’s no attempt, for instance, at conveying an impression of the banjo-and-heads performance - though it otherwise does an adequate job.


Posted on 23rd May 2008
Under: Jump-Cuts, Stage Magic, 1898, Superimposition | No Comments »

The Famous Box Trick

Illusions fantasmagoriques, 1898, 1m14s
Star Film Catalogue No. 155

A stage magician produces a dove from his sleeve, kisses it and puts it in a large wooden box that is mounted on a small table. He then throws in various items of clothing and makes a symbolic gesture. A small child emerges from the box, and the magician carries him out, placing him on a small plinth. He then produces a large axe and cuts the boy down the middle, producing two identical children. They begin to fight each other, and the magician picks one up and turns him upside down. The boy is transformed into a piece of paper, which the magician rips up. He puts the other boy back in the box, whose walls he then systematically removes with a hammer, revealing nothing inside. He pats one of the now-separated sides of the box as it lies on the floor, and the boy reappears on top of it. The magician picks him up, and the boy turns into a couple of large flags, which the magician waves at the audience. Finally, he climbs onto the table, sits cross-legged and vanishes in a puff of smoke. He re-emerges from the side of the stage to take a bow.

The Famous Box Trick can be viewed as a kind of sequel to The Vanishing Lady (Escamotage d’une dame chez Robert-Houdin, 1896) in that it reprises many of the same elements. These include a blatantly theatrical setting, whose audience is acknowledged throughout, a bearded magician (almost certainly Méliès himself, albeit sporting a wig) going through a stage routine, a title that implies that said routine is part of a longstanding tradition, and an assortment of specifically filmic special effects that give the lie to that impression.

Two years on, Méliès’ box of tricks was more copiously stuffed than was the case with the relatively primitive The Vanishing Lady. Although the jump-cut still reigns supreme, it’s combined here with an effect in which a boy is ’sliced’ with an axe, dividing him into two identically-dressed children. It’s an effect that both harks back to stage magic (the use of a double being the simplest way of implying that someone is either in two places at once or has made a physically impossible journey), only it’s triggered here by a jump-cut that would be impossible to duplicate on stage.

But it’s also worth noting that this effect is the first that we encounter in the film, and it doesn’t appear until near the halfway mark. Before then, the film does indeed seem to be a straightforward actuality record of a Méliès stage performance, starting with the dove being produced from his sleeve and being tossed into the box along with a set of clothes. Although there appears to be a jump-cut just before the boy appears, there’s no obvious need for one: up to this point there’s nothing in the film that couldn’t have been duplicated on stage.

The division by axe is by far the film’s high point, after which it returns to familiar Méliès territory, with both boys being transformed by more jump-cuts into a piece of paper and a couple of flags respectively, and we have also seen an exploding disappearing act in such films as The Bewitched Inn (L’Auberge ensorcelée, 1897) and The Magician (Le Magicien, 1898).

The print on Flicker Alley’s DVD is marked by white speckles and tramlines more or less throughout, though is otherwise very watchable. Frederick Hodges’ piano accompaniment is a jaunty theme-and-variations arrangement.


Posted on 20th May 2008
Under: Jump-Cuts, Mechanical Props, Stage Magic, 1898 | No Comments »

The Magician

Le Magicien, 1898, 1m10s
Star Film Catalogue No. 153

A man dressed as a wizard makes a table appear out of nowhere, and then conjures up a wooden box on top of it. He then leaps towards the box, and vanishes. A man dressed as Pierrot immediately bursts out of the box and jumps onto the floor (at which point a chair appears). He tries to make things appear on the now-empty table, but fails. Dejectedly, he sits on the chair, whereupon food and drink appear on the table. Delighted, he tastes the food and, satisfied, sits back down - but the chair, table and food disappear, leaving him on the ground. A man in Elizabethan doublet and hose appears and claps him on the shoulder, turning him into a bearded artist. The Elizabethan man vanishes, and the artist picks up a bust from the floor and puts it onto a pedestal. He chips at its face, whereupon it comes to life and grabs the hammer and chisel. It then grows an attractive female body, which the artist tries in vain to hug - it keeps disappearing and reappearing in various statuesque poses before vanishing for good in a puff of smoke. The Elizabethan man reappears and kicks the artist’s behind… (print ends here)

Very much in the tradition of Georges Méliès’ earlier A Nightmare (Le Cauchemar, 1896) and The Haunted Castle (Le Château hanté, 1897) and, doubtless, many other now-lost films, The Magician is another exercise in the art of the jump-cut, which is once again used to make objects and people appear and disappear in the blink of an eye.

In fact, this time round, Méliès seems so in thrall to his special effects that it’s hard to detect much in the way of continuous narrative. The title is The Magician (i.e. singular), which suggests that the wizard, the man in the Pierrot costume and the Michelangelesque sculptor are intended to be the same person in various states of metamorphosis, but this is not clear from the evidence on screen. It’s even less clear who the deus ex machina in the form of a gentleman in vaguely Elizabethan dress is intended to represent - he makes two appearances that seem largely irrelevant to the rest of the film. Although at over a minute the running time of The Magician is in line with other Méliès films of the period, the abrupt ending of the print under review suggests that some footage is missing.

One immediate point of interest in The Magician, as it’s an effect not present in any previous surviving Méliès film, is the moment when the bust switches from a rather obviously painted prop (the protagonist was presumably meant to keep it facing in the same head-on direction throughout, but a slight shift in perspective betrays its essential flatness) to something that suddenly comes to life. Presumably the woman who plays the now-aggressive bust is mostly clad in black and standing behind the flat representing the stand, but the effect of a disembodied head and upper body anticipates the kind of multiple-exposure trickery that Méliès would soon undertake in such films as The Four Troublesome Heads (Un homme de tête, 1898).

Another point worth noting is the theme of objects coming to life and taking revenge on their human owners, as demonstrated by the scene in which the hapless Pierrot can taste the food but cannot eat it, since it immediately vanishes along with the chair and table. The Czech Surrealist filmmaker Jan Švankmajer, a known devotee of Méliès, concocted a very similar scenario at the mid-point of his film The Flat (Byt, 1968), and his pixilation technique isn’t that far removed from Méliès’ approach, consisting as it does of simply stopping and restarting the camera after making adjustments to the image.

The untinted print on Flicker Alley’s DVD is generally in acceptable condition, bar occasional flashes of physical and chemical damage and evidence of splice marks around some of the jump-cuts (presumably inherent in the original). The relentless, driving music is sourced from Edvard Grieg’s ‘March of the Dwarfs’ (from the Lyric Suite, op.54), given an electronic arrangement here by Joe Rinaudo, whose touch of the barrel-organ creates an appropriately vaudeville atmosphere.


Posted on 19th May 2008
Under: Jump-Cuts, Stage Magic, 1898 | 1 Comment »

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